Florida and Miami are "close to signing a deal" that would bring both teams to Orlando's Citrus Bowl for a season-opening game in 2019, the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Bianchi reports.
Although the deal has not yet been signed and a last-minute snag in negotiations is always a possibility, it certainly appears the Gators and Hurricanes will renew their once-annual rivalry for the first time since 2013.
Florida-Miami would also be another premier neutral site game for the Citrus Bowl, which will host Florida State-Ole Miss next season and Alabama-Louisville in 2018. Florida Citrus Sports is also apparently in negotiations to bring a marquee college football match-up to the Citrus Bowl in 2017.
ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy also reported that the two teams are "expected" to come to terms on an agreement to open the 2019 season in Orlando, but only with a tweet, and without expanding in detail.
If the two teams are indeed targeting the Citrus Bowl — now formally the Orlando Citrus Bowl — for a season opener, it would be yet another feather in the cap for Florida Citrus Sports, which has worked to revitalize the aging stadium and its surroundings for years. The stadium was most recently renovated in 2014, at a cost of more than $200 million, to remove some seating and modernize the facility, originally built in 1936, as a whole.
Update, 5:08 p.m. Eastern: Miami athletic director Blake James downplayed Bianchi's report on a deal between Florida and Miami being "close" in quotes to Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post.
The Sentinel reported the UM-UF contract has not been finalized, but the sides were "close to a deal." James, who has long been interested in renewing the rivalry, said he has not seen a contract, so calling it "close" would be premature. However, he said the terms presented by Florida Citrus Sports, the organization that would host the game, were attractive.
Under the proposed deal, UM and UF would have an equal number of allotted tickets, which would allay some concern regarding Orlando's proximity to Gainesville. That, plus "the financial package they're proposing" and the non-conference opening UM has on its 2019 schedule makes James eager to "get that into a contract and come to an agreement on it."
"If I don't have a contract I can review, it's not something to me that's ‘close,'" James said. "It's a conversation I'm having. I'm interested in playing Florida. I think Orlando has talked in terms that are attractive to us."
No matter the terms, simply having the game in Orlando would be seen as a significant victory for Florida. The school has been adamant about not resuming what was an annual series with Miami from 1944 to 1987, often citing both the athletic department's preference for scheduling a minimum of seven home games each fall and Florida's rugged schedule — which includes a continuing home-and-home series with Florida State — as the primary reasons for resistance to the idea, and to the concept of continuing the rivalry on a less-frequent basis as a home-and-home series.
The charge from the other side, and from many "neutral" observers, is much different: Florida simply started ducking the 'Canes when it became wise to do so, with Miami at the height of its powers in a decade that yielded four national titles and Florida stuck in the morass of NCAA probation and penalties.
And though Florida was close to even with Miami when the sides agreed on a four-game series to be played in Gainesville and Miami in 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2013, the Gators have struggled with the 'Canes since the cessation of the annual rivalry, going 1-5 in six games between the teams since, including an 0-2 record in bowl games.
Jeremy Foley has previously indicated an openness to finding a neutral-site solution for the resumption of the rivalry, however, and that lends credence to the idea that Florida would go for a trip to the City Beautiful to play the 'Canes.
And Orlando, most observers believe, would be anything but neutral for a game between the two programs: Florida fans and alumni populate much of Central Florida, while Miami fans are concentrated in South Florida. Even an equal division of ticket allotments would only theoretically produce neutrality; tickets, of course, get resold, and it's highly unlikely that every seat will be allocated to either Florida or Miami.
In any case, a neutral-site game about two hours from Gainesville against a hated rival in which the crowd can be expected to favor Florida is just about the next best thing to a big home game for the Gators. And that's an assessment done without even factoring in the likely substantial payday from Florida Citrus Sports or a broadcast partner. Florida State is set to make $3.5 million from ESPN for playing its 2016 season opener against Mississippi at the Citrus Bowl, and Florida and Miami could command that much, or perhaps more, for a game three years later.
If Florida was ever going to play Miami again, it was likely going to be on Florida's terms more than on Miami's: The Gators' greater national pull, and ability to find mutually beneficial games like a 2017 season opener in Cowboys Stadium against Michigan to whet fans' appetites for better non-conference challenges and unique experiences, ensured that Florida would have more negotiating leverage.
If this deal goes through, there's no question that Florida will have gotten what it wants — favorable conditions and concessions for choosing to play Miami. And while Miami will get what it wants — another chance to beat the hated Gators — it will come in a situation in which Florida has scored a win before the game even begins.